The capital of Estonia, Tallinn, was the first Estonian city to bear the title in 2011, but in 2024, the European Capital of Culture will once again reach Estonia. And to everyone’s surprise, on January 23rd this year, the Eastern-most city of Estonia and one of Europe’s largest border towns, Narva, has decided to run for the title.
The official launch ceremony was held in Narva's historic City Hall and was attended by the President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid, the ambassadors of Finland, Sweden, Germany, Norway, Denmark and Austria, members of Narva City Council, representatives of cultural initiatives and entrepreneurs.
What is the big deal?
Narva is a complicated city, simultaneously dividing and uniting two civilizations: the European North and the Slavonic East. It was an important trade port and an aspiring second capital of the Swedish Empire during the XVI-XVII centuries, as well as an important industrial hub during the Soviet times. However, given its traumatic history, a pattern of post-industrial decline and 96% of it's 58,000 inhabitants (down from 82,000 back in 1992) speaking Russian as their mother tongue, the city has been struggling to find new meaning ever since Estonia regained its independence in 1991. Never a darling of the media, the city became especially notorious after the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, when noticing its geopolitical location, demographical buildup and structural problems, the foreign press flocked to Narva, asking “Is Narva next?”
Narva is next!
Having grown weary of assuring its loyalty to Estonia and Europe, the city recently decided to turn this perception around with a confident reply “Narva is next!” reframing itself not as a fragile geopolitical time-bomb, but as Estonia’s next big success story, a creative hotspot, making the most of the advantages of being a border city between the techtonic plates of Russian and European cultures.
Bidding for the title of the European Capital of Culture in 2024 will create a time window of valuable 6 years to develop a clear vision and a strategy to reinvent the border town, eventually encouraging the local community to make a leap from the industrial era to the post-industrial one. The city believes that culture, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial thinking could help it turn the next page. Given its unique history, post-soviet quirkiness, difficult geopolitical location and plenty of space for radical improvement, Narva might be one of the most important ECoCs in the history of the project and an extremely timely one as well.
The European Capital of Culture
Starting 1985, the title of the European Capital of Culture (ECoC for short) has been annually awarded to two cities within the European Union, with a couple exceptions. It is one of Europe’s most famous and effective cultural initiatives, which provides to the title-barer city intense international attention throughout the title year, constituting for most participating cities the largest cultural event in their history. Although technically a “cultural” project, for dozens of cities around Europe ECoC has served as a tool to reestablish themselves, bring to fruition long-awaited plans and make both a cultural and an economic leap forward.